How longitudinal studies can be an extension of community memory in African agricultural economies
Many organisations conduct surveys in rural African communities where agriculture is a major socio-economic driver. Besides lacking coherence, these surveys are often short term, ranging from one to three months. In a rapidly changing economic environment, such surveys are of little value because things change before survey reports are published. This calls for a culture of longitudinal studies with the content becoming the foundation of community knowledge centres. ICTs such as computers and mobile phones can be powerful enablers of longitudinal studies in rural areas if properly harnessed. While periodic surveys are often based on respondents’ capacity to remember things and events, ICTs can leverage content generated through longitudinal studies and make it available in ways that complement human memory. Through ICT-enabled longitudinal studies, information can be gathered from farmers and other value chain actors in small incremental chunks that can be aggregated to reveal trends important for decision making.
Through longitudinal studies, farmers, traders and other local value chain actors can integrate feedback loops and their daily experiments into their knowledge sharing systems. Due to lack of organized knowledge centres where longitudinal data is stored and processed, farmers and other value chain actors are currently frustrated by confusing and cumbersome sources of information. Therefore, processes that continuously and timely inform decision making are becoming more important than flitting messages that are difficult to knit into a coherent message. Depending on who is funding the survey and the intended use of the generated information, some researchers conducting a survey often adopt a thematic approach, for instance, focusing on gender. Ideally, farmers and other informants should participate in research planning, developing data gathering tools and providing feedback on findings. A survey that focuses on gender alone as a theme may not be useful because gender goes with a certain context where there are numerous variables to be explored for decision-making.
eMKambo’s angle into longitudinal studies is from informal agriculture markets where fascinating patterns are now emerging. Information from informal agriculture markets is gathered daily, monitoring commodity performance, market performance, value chain actor participation, prices, etc. People are looked at in relation to commodities because it makes sense to speak about gender in relation to particular commodities. An agricultural commodity in the market can tell you more about women and youth in the market. You can see commodities brought by women or youth.
While research is important, topics and themes to research on should be informed by longitudinal studies. Local schools can be empowered to conduct community longitudinal research where they capture information about their environment, agricultural trends, health and other variables. Simple tools can be designed for schools to do longitudinal research and this can be done by school clubs. An in-depth research on, for instance, environmental degradation at community level should be picked up from longitudinal studies where community youth or school children will have documented changes in their environment through simple tools that do not require a lot of resources.
Community participation in longitudinal studies is immensely beneficial to local people as they can see and be able to capture positive and negative changes in their own environment. For instance, they can see their rivers drying or indigenous trees like baobab trees disappearing due to uncontrolled deforestation or over-crowding. Witnessing such disaster in the making can jolt communities into action more than would happen if they were listening to someone presenting his or her research findings on the same issue.
Longitudinal studies are also important because, besides losing institutional knowledge through the passing on of elders, human memory has its limits. Since much of the feedback captured through periodic surveys may not be correct, longitudinal studies can be a way of verifying and providing a second or third opinion. When gathering information through surveys, farmers who are asked to remember their yields or income in the past two to three farming seasons may have forgotten the details. If some of that information has already been captured through community longitudinal studies, it can easily be retrieved from the community knowledge centre rather than relying entirely on human memory. Communities should have simple tools for capturing rainfall patterns and the status of groundwater at community level over a long period of time. This prevents a situation where more than 30% of farmers participating in rainfall surveys may have forgotten important details.
The absence of longitudinal studies is one of the reasons why many development organisations spend a lot of resources trying to identify community ‘beneficiaries’. Some of these challenges can be addressed by allocating resources to communities so that they are able to conduct simple longitudinal studies rather than depending on consultants from urban areas who barely understand the history of issues affecting communities. Literacy rates in African countries like Zimbabwe make it possible for ordinary people to conduct basic community-organised and driven research. If education cannot be translated into simple tools that can be used by ordinary people, its usefulness is highly questionable. Graphics below depict examples of information generated through longitudinal data gathering processes. Youth in agricultural communities should be supported to gather such intelligence at local level so that it can inform agricultural practices.
Graphic 1: Sweet potato quantities supplied to Mbare Agriculture Market in 2014 (Tons/month)
Graphic 2: Top ten sweet potato earners by source (2014)
This information should be available at knowledge centres in each of these districts. Farmers in Murehwa should simply get this information from their local community knowledge centre and try to match their production with market trends. The absence of knowledge centres in farming areas currently makes it difficult to match market supply with production patterns on the ground. NGOs working in particular districts should ensure their work speaks to longitudinal studies at community level rather than phasing out projects without handing over tools that will enable communities to continue building on what has been achieved or learnt. In addition, local universities offering courses like agricultural economics, rural development and sociology can participate in longitudinal studies at community level. This way, communities become strong and realistic extensions of university outreach programmes unlike the current scenario where university students have very little contact with farming communities.
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